My flair for the corset and the bustle stood me in good stead as I read Ted Scheinman’s new book, Camp Austen, which chronicles the year and a half the author spent participating in, “accidentally” loving, and then leaving what he calls “Austenworld.” Scheinman, a self-professed “lapsed scholar” of British literature, charmingly narrates his dabblings among the “secret society” of Jane Austen fans in this lively debut that blurs the lines between literary criticism, memoir, ode to superfandom, and digestible biography of one of the most beloved authors in history.
As the son of a devoted Austen scholar, Scheinman was thrust early and somewhat reluctantly into Austenworld. Born into it the way anyone might pick up a parent’s occupation by proximity, Scheinman read Austen’s juvenilia before he’d read any of her classic novels. Even before being carted off to England by his mother at the age of nine, he had decided for his family that his little sister should be named Jane. His mother plays a significant role in the book, the author alternately embracing and eschewing her Austenesque influence. “My mother is an exacting proponent of etiquette,” he writes. “[T]o the extent that my adult conscience is capable of speech, it speaks in the register and cadences of my mother.” On the one hand, Scheinman admires the obsession with language and the elegant decorum of Austenworld; on the other hand, he longs to escape it intact so that he can carve out his own niche far from the clutches of parental expectation.
Austen’s story is interwoven with Scheinman’s own. His prologue introduces little Jane as a 12-year-old girl wandering her father’s library, a ravenous consumer of the fiction of her day and a lover of sarcastic parody, biting comedy, and charming wit. Scheinman wants us to get to know her, despite professing that he has “no loyalty.” The success of Camp Austen is that it sustains a sense of fun, whether sharing the hilarity of Jane’s early works (cannibalism, anyone?) or exploring the convivial world of Austen cosplay.
After the biographical introduction of both authors, the book fans out into five leisurely chapters that read like linked essays. We witness Scheinman’s progression as he is dragged into Austenworld more as a curious reporter seeking freelance material than as the true fan-nerd his mother might wish him to be. When his mother is faced with untimely surgery, Scheinman becomes her hesitant surrogate at Austen conferences, giving talks, playing host, and dressing as Mr. Darcy for costumed balls. While he finds himself drawn to this world of passionate superfandom, he struggles against its obsessive, fanatical intensity.
The first essay offers Scheinman’s “oversimplified” take on the main theme of Austen’s work: “[a]ll of Austen is a story about inheritance,” whether financial, genetic, or behavioral. This scholarly analysis segues into a discussion of his involvement in setting up the Jane Austen Summer Camp in North Carolina during the bicentennial of Pride and Prejudice, where he was introduced to a sweaty cosplay of restrictive tights and cotillion dance missteps. Acting as a stand-in for his absent mother was its own form of inheritance: “An inheritance is a blessing,” he writes, “but, as I discovered, also confers duties.” Scheinman similarly shows us everything “inherited” by this secret society of fans known as “Janeites,” from their mannerisms and dress to their knowledge of the Regency era to their regurgitated lines lifted directly from their inspirer’s pages. These are repeat readers who count how many times an umbrella is opened and closed in Austen’s books or how often the word “civility” appears in Pride and Prejudice (79 times).
Scheinman discovers a whole new level of superfandom far apart from the teenaged girls who swooned over a brooding, wet-shirted Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the famous BBC adaptation. There are Austen action figures and bumper stickers, fatuous feuds with the Brontë camp (“Mr. Rochester attracts Jane Eyre by scowling; Darcy wins Lizzy’s love by treating the servants kindly.”), and outraged ladies compelled to defend Austen’s honor when she is portrayed in a poster with one sleeve slipping scantily down. Scheinman humorously skewers this rampant display of “manners envy” while posing the question he tries repeatedly to make us answer: how much of Jane Austen really belongs to us, and what are we allowed to do with it? “[E]ngaging with others’ conceptions of Austen brings you closer to the real thing,” he writes. “Through the imagined possibilities of what she might have been, we involve ourselves, however whimsically, in discovering who she really was.”
What ensues is a candid and immensely pleasing romp through Austen camps, conferences, and costumed balls, where the author fumbles with wardrobe malfunctions, overfilled dance cards, and questionable period recipes, somehow surviving to tell the tale. Despite professing that he never felt he belonged in this world he “half willingly and half accidentally” fell into, Scheinman treats the Janeites with the utmost respect and care, richly depicting them as human beings with true hearts, solid minds, and a deep sense of community. Austenworld is one of the few spaces where participants can mingle comfortably and with a genuine sense of equality in what Scheinman calls a “mixed” circle — “that is, civilian and academic.” Though determined to break away from the trappings of his mother’s calling, Scheinman has nonetheless penned a love letter to Austen superfandom, and with it a documentation of this fascinating literary bailiwick.
Since Austen’s books revolve around female protagonists and complex relationships among women, it is only to be expected that Austenworld would be a subculture largely dominated by females. Scheinman ultimately finds this gender imbalance wearing, a cue for his inevitable exit:
When friends have asked why I no longer frequent this world, I have avoided an explanation that I assume they cannot understand: that I became increasingly uncomfortable with the affirmative action that I continued to receive in Austenworld, whereby a straight, quasi-eligible male represents a desirable minority. [… F]rom a political standpoint, it’s utterly reactionary. [… S]uch a role is not for me.
He is pulled every which way to fill a dance card, watching mothers pawn off their daughters on him without shame or self-awareness. Yet, when he tells his male friends that he’s dressing in tights, he is met with smirks. Scheinman discusses these gender roles and rituals in Austenworld with discretion and mindfulness, raising compelling points about the complex nature of male reactions to classic female writers and how seriously their work is taken.
Whether discussing film and theatrical adaptations or dissecting the magic of Austen’s lasting appeal, Camp Austen is a vivid and absorbing book. But don’t let its whimsical cover fool you: this is a solid work of literary scholarship and affecting biography as much as it is a fun romp of memoir and laugh-out-loud reportage. Readers unversed in the Austen canon will inevitably miss some of the cleverer references, but that is to be expected. The triumph of Camp Austen, however, is that there is something here for all readers, whether devoted Janeites, curious neophytes, or those of us just showing up for the clotted cream and costumes.
Leah Angstman serves as editor in chief for Alternating Current Press and The Coil magazine, and as a fiction and nonfiction reviewer for Publishers Weekly.